Does it actually matter who builds 5G?
It is not a US-China fight and 5G is on the brink of shaping the future of the entire world
Our future editor Kelsey Warner and tech and business reporter Alkesh Sharma debate whether or not who actually builds the 5G infrastructure is one of the key quandaries connected to the super-fast new internet network.
It's a question worth discussing because, as Warner notes, "5G will be a worldwide service, not just a niche novelty".
Kelsey Warner: I’ll kick us off. The question on the table is: does it matter who builds the 5G network that devices all over the world will soon rely on for an internet connection? What do you think? Does it matter or not?
Alkesh Sharma: Given the massive scope of 5G, it certainly matters who is building it. We need to understand that 5G is not only about super-fast connectivity or faster smartphones or just a departure from its predecessors. It will connect billions of devices, automated vehicles and smart cities. So there should be a strong framework or regulations in place before allowing any equipment-maker to enter this race.
KW: The Trump administration’s campaign to discredit Chinese telecom equipment manufacturers – namely world market leader Huawei – is a massive distraction to what will be a paradigm shift in technology with the advent of 5G. While I believe it matters to an extent who installs the infrastructure the new network will rely on to run, the crux of the debate is that one of the world’s biggest economies – the US – is falling behind in one of the most important races in the 21st century.
Putting too much emphasis on the original infrastructure providers misses the forest for the trees and is distracting us from important conversations around how 5G will be regulated once it is more widely implemented
Putting too much emphasis on the original infrastructure providers misses the forest for the trees and is distracting us from important conversations around how 5G will be regulated once it is more widely implemented.
AS: I agree that the US is trying its best to sideline Chinese firms from the 5G race, but I think politicising 5G has become a new trend. We need to look beyond Huawei and understand that it is not a US-China fight and 5G is on the brink of shaping the future of the entire world. Many other players, such as Nokia and Ericsson, are also in the race and doing some really good stuff.
We also can’t ignore that most of the tech development in China is usually focused on servicing the specific characteristics of the country. So there is no harm in asking Huawei to be accountable to the countries it services. Also, despite the anti-Huawei campaign endorsed by the US, the Chinese equipment-maker is already leading the race – with maximum contracts in its pocket. So it is largely unaffected by most of the campaigns, led by the US, to discredit it.
KW: The clock is ticking on giving this adequate scrutiny. Researchers from Purdue University and Iowa University found security vulnerabilities in 5G – no matter who builds the network infrastructure – that hackers can bump a person’s phone down to a 4G network and then identify the phone user’s name and location. Such a tactic would only cost the criminal a few hundred dollars. These warnings are not coming too soon – in the next couple of years,
5G will be a worldwide service, not just a niche novelty.
The UK and EU have already indicated they do not see any viable alternative to Huawei. Last month, Britain said it would allow it limited access to its future 5G network. Then, the EU announced it would follow suit. These decisions recognise the truth that if you want 5G and its super-fast internet speeds then you have little option but to turn to Huawei. In this way, governments are acknowledging the limits of caring too much about who builds it – and refusing to be distracted by a certain president’s tweets.
This is good, because it means more nations are prioritising and scrutinising the underlying architecture and policymaking of 5G, and not on a more narrow view of who is building it.
We can’t let it be an open field. Only selective players should be allowed access to critical infrastructure of the country
AS: But we need to understand that to minimise the 5G network’s security vulnerabilities, we can’t let it be an open field. Only selective players should be allowed access to critical infrastructure of the country. With 5G roll-out, higher traffic volumes will be generated by numerous connected devices and this will require a substantial upgrade of transmission capacities, which will place additional demands on the network design. This is not possible without regulating the makers globally and working with them in unison to ensure the effective roll-out.
I think the key to 5G success is collaboration. And that is why it matters who builds or creates it. Especially in this Vuca (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) world that we live in today, it would be irrational that such a responsibility is handed over to multiple players without a proper system of its establishment, roll-out and use in place. Opening this space for everyone can have disastrous results – hence it matters.
KW: So do you think it is unwise for the UK and EU to allow Huawei in?
AS: Not at all, I am not against Huawei. The UK and EU are allowing it, but under severe restrictions and scrutiny. At this point, the main aim is an effective roll-out of 5G that demands effective framework and regulations.
KW: ...without hampering innovation or competition. It is an extremely tall order. So far I’m not confident any jurisdiction has figured it out.
AS: I agree. It is just the beginning.
KW: The danger is in needing to change the tyres while you’re driving down the highway. That’s exactly what we’re facing now, with mass market 5G-enabled devices being rolled out while very little in the way of consumer protection is being offered. I’m looking forward to covering it all with you.
Published: February 8, 2020 11:58 AM